Barnwell vs Mays: Reviewing NFL Preseason Predictions by Grantland Experts Bill Barnwell & Robert Mays

Way back in early September, before the NFL season began, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, staff writers at Grantland, ran a podcast in which they made numerous preseason predictions for fun. At the suggestion of one of them during the podcast, I took down their predictions, but then never sent them in to Grantland, and the notes have just been sitting in my Gmail drafts folder for months. No more!

While Bill Barnwell posted an excellent feature about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, quarterback Russell Wilson, and the best contract in football (click here for my own analysis of the best contracts in football; Wilson is certainly up there), I thought it would be fun to analyze Barnwell, and Mays, to determine who made the better predictions this season. Is one more expert than the other? Check it out!

Player Props

Adrian Peterson: 5.1 Yards per Carry
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (4.5)

Say it with me now: regression to the mean. Not just to the league average (about four yards) but to Peterson’s own. Peterson has now had two seasons over 5.1 yards per carry and five seasons under it; among those five seasons, even the highest clip is only 4.8.

J.J. Watt: 15.5 Sacks
Mays: Under
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (10.5)

Regression scores again! J.J. Watt still put up the best season of any defensive player (highest graded by Pro Football Focus on the season), but 16 sacks is a lot for anyone, especially a 3-4 defensive end whose primary job is not rushing the passer.

John Abraham: 8.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (11.5)

A surprisingly impressive season from the 35-year-old.

Andrew Luck: 4,200 Passing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: No bet, agrees with logic, no strong feelings.
Result: Under (3,822)

This result is even more impressive given that Trent Richardson was so completely ineffective (averaged 2.9 yards per carry) this season.

Andrew Luck: 15.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Agree? Recognizes similar logic.
Result: Under (9)

The kid is good. Although he did rank 20th among 27 quarterbacks in accuracy percentage (per PFF). Maybe something to consider next season.

Geno Atkins: 9.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (6)

Atkins went down on Halloween against the Dolphins and that was it for his season. He only played in seven games. Injury risk is always something to consider.

Greg Olsen: 775.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (816)

Curious. Prior to 2012, Olsen’s most receiving yards in a season were his 612 with the Bears in 2009. But with Cam Newton he has now gone over 800 twice.

Matt Forte: 1,000.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under, later SWITCHES to Over
Result: Over (1,339)

A wise move as Forte put together his first back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons. Staying healthy, and amassing the most rushing attempts since his rookie season, certainly helped.

Charles Tillman: 4.5 Forced Fumbles
Barnwell: Under
Mays: No bet (“HOW DARE YOU?”)
Result: Under (3)

Injury cashes Barnwell in again, as Tillman went down only halfway through the season. But this merely underscores that a lot of things have to go right for a corner, or really anyone, to force five fumbles in one season.

Doug Martin: 8.5 Touchdowns
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Pressed by Mays, only says “8 or 9”
Result: Under (1)
Poor Doug Martin’s fate was sealed the instant I drafted him in the first round of my fantasy draft, as he went out for the season in Week 6. Still, a low total nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers: 38.5 Touchdown Passes
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (17)

More injuries, more problems for the over bets. Although in the eight games in which he played more than a few snaps, he only threw 17, not quite on pace for over. Presumably offensive rookie of the year running back Eddie Lacy had something to do with this.

Robert Griffin III: 575.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (489)
Washington never seemed to recover from their opening day track meet against the Eagles, and Griffin missing the final three games while “sort-of-injured-but-healthy-enough-to-play-but-what’s-the-point” was pretty hard to predict.
Jason Babin: 9.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under (Barnwell’s lock)
Mays: Under
Result: Under (7.5)

Barnwell’s lock comes through, although this must have been a little exciting as Babin came on and posted 5.5 in December.

Brian Orakpo: 7.5 Sacks
Mays: Over (Mays’ lock)
Barnwell: Over
Result: Over (10)

Mays’ lock comes through, as Orakpo went over on December 1st against the New York Giants. He is pretty good when healthy, it would seem.

Alex Smith: 3,350 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (3,313)

This was about Andy Reid being allergic to running backs in Philadelphia and Alex Smith having Dwayne Bowe to throw to, and, uh, hold that thought…

***BONUS BET***
Dwayne Bowe: 1,000.5 Receiving Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (673)

Ouch.

Dez Bryant: 92.5 Catches
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Over (93)

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Grantland staff writer Robert Mays! Really must have sweat it too, with Bryant needing eight receptions in Week 17 against Philadelphia, without Kyle Orton at quarterback. But he eked it out!

Danny Amendola: 950.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (633)

Ouch. Injuries, injuries, injuries… Amendola missed four games.

Tavon Austin: 7.5 Touchdowns (Rushing, Receiving, & Return)
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (6)

To be fair, Austin would likely have gone over if it had not taken the Rams coaching staff to realize that Austin was on their team (and/or the Rams special teams return unit had not felt the need to hold or block in the back on approximately 371% of their returns).

Richard Sherman: 4.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (8)

An incredible result. Among corners who played half or more of their teams’ snaps, Sherman was targeted only 58 times in the regular season, the sixth-fewest. He led the league with eight interceptions. Sherman grabbed a pick every 7.25 throws into his coverage, easily tops in the league. Goodness.

***Mays’ Prediction***
Jonathan Banks leads the league in interceptions.

Very, very difficult to predict; Banks finished tied for 15th with several players, having recorded three interceptions.

Chris Long: 10 sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (8.5)

Maybe next year; PFF awarded him 10 sacks, as they do not punish players by awarding only a half-sack when another teammate also gets to the quarterback. Also Long’s 46 quarterback hurries were tied for fourth at his position this season. He generated pressure, but sometimes it takes a little luck (or a bad opponent quarterback) to get the sack numbers.

Josh Freeman: 16.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Under (4)

What a year for Freeman, in all the bad ways. Ugh. And he actually was right about on pace, throwing one in every game he played.

Clay Mathews: 11.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (7.5)

Injuries, oh the injuries…

Russell Wilson: 3,400 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: No bet
Result: Under (3,357)

Yeeesh. Perhaps if Percy Harvin had played more than 40 snaps…

Division Winners & Playoffs

First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: OAK
Mays: OAK
Result: HOU
AFC East
Barnwell: NE
Mays: NE
Result: NE
AFC North
Barnwell: PIT
Mays: CIN (PIT last!)
Result: CIN (PIT actually 2nd, 8-8 and ahead of the 8-8 Ravens)
AFC South
Barnwell: HOU
Mays: HOU
Result: IND
AFC West
Barnwell: KC
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
AFC Wildcards
Barnwell: DEN, CIN
Mays: KC, BAL
Result: KC, SD
NFC East
Barnwell: NYG
Mays: DAL
Result: PHI
NFC North
Barnwell: GB
Mays: GB
Result: GB
NFC South
Barnwell: TB
Mays: TB
Result: CAR
NFC West
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: SF
Result: SEA
NFC Wildcards
Barnwell: SF, DET
Mays: CHI, SEA
Result: SF, NO
AFC Champion
Barnwell: DEN
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
NFC Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: GB
Result: SEA
Super Bowl Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: DEN
Result: SEA

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Grantland staff writer Bill Barnwell! Correctly predicting BOTH conference champions AND the Super Bowl champions! Barnwell would be the very first one to tell you that this result is due to his prodigious SKILL and not at all due to luck…oh right, he is Bill Barnwell. He is not foolish.

Player & Coach Statistical Leaders and Awards

Defensive Player of the Year
Barnwell: Clay Matthews
Mays: Geno Atkins (15 sacks!)
Result: Luke Kuechly

To be fair, Kuechly totally did not deserve this award at all. (Maybe more on that later.) But then with injuries, neither did their selections.

Passing Leader
Barnwell: Peyton Manning
Mays: Andrew Luck
Result: Peyton Manning
Rushing Leader
Barnwell: Trent Richardson
Mays: LeSean McCoy
Result: LeSean McCoy
Receiving Leader
Barnwell: Calvin Johnson
Mays: Dez Bryant
Result: Josh Gordon (in only 14 games!)
First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: Jadeveon Clowney
Mays: Teddy Bridgewater
Result: TBD
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Tavon Austin
Mays: Eddie Lacey
Result: Eddie Lacey
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Kenny Vaccaro
Mays: Alec Ogletree
Result: Sheldon Richardson
Coach of the Year
Barnwell: Andy Reid
Mays: Greg Schiano
Result: “Riverboat” Ron Rivera
Most Valuable Player
Barnwell: Russell Wilson
Mays: Aaron Rodgers
Result: Peyton Manning

Final Scorecards

Overall, Mr. Mays went a respectable 15/44, 34% on his picks. In pure props he was 6/20, while going 2/9 on individual awards and statistics and 7/15 on team predictions. Mr. Barnwell edged him slightly, going 17/46, 37%. Barnwell went 9/22 on player props, 1/9 on individual awards and statistics, and 7/15 on team predictions. When both Mays and Barnwell agreed, they went 8/21, 38%; 5/15 on props, 0/1 on awards, and 3/5 on teams.

The lesson? Predictions are not easy, and your gut feeling will not take you very far, even if you know a lot. Consider that among their player predictions, designed to have a 50-50 chance, both Mays and Barnwell did worse than a coin flip. This is not because they do not know about football (they know a great deal), but because this stuff is hard, and luck plays a bigger role than anything else. Nonetheless, one can see why a comprehensive examination of numbers might come in handy.

If you see a supposed pundit make a prediction, remember to think twice before buying in. Okay, that is not news. But remember to ALWAYS think twice (and a third time, a fourth, etc), even when the pundits are quite knowledgeable, even when the predictors tell a story that you find logically sound, and perhaps most importantly, even when you already agree with them (and especially when they are not being 100% serious, à la Mays and Barnwell). Or at the very least, think twice before you put any money down.

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